Iran was a tiny place outside Iran
October 17, 2004
My family and I had to leave Iran when I was only
four. At that time, Mani - my older brother - and I both intuitively
this sudden departure towards an unknown destination was caused
by frightening and obscure matters. It followed overwhelming
events, belonging to a world that was standing well above us and
people solely could understand.
And so, we were going on a journey
in "the outside world", for a long and indeterminate
time. The journey will be filled with all kinds of discoveries
and adventures, would my parents' relieving words suggest,
and we would come back home, one day... "Home", emotionally
speaking, had thus been defined in my four-year-old heart and
mind as Iran, and this emotional tie probably even strengthened
to the unforgettably painful circumstances in which we left the
During the first several years spent in the "outside world",
my emotional bond towards Iran quickly merged with the one I had
towards my family. To me, Iran was no longer a country; in a way,
it was simply a warm and affectionate unit where my parents, Mani,
and I had never ceased to speak our Dezfouli southern dialect,
where we weekly ate our home-made Chelo-Kabab, and where we listened
to the Beatles, Joan Baez, and, most often, to exquisite pieces
of Iranian traditional music.
Iran had become a tiny place in the
heart of Paris where my parents' friends would regularly
come and where, together, they would spend hours talking passionately
about Iranian society and politics, and evoke their lives
in the homeland, with nostalgia in their eyes and voices.
As years went by and as our initial intention to go back to Iran
was getting more and more uncertain, my parents' network
of Iranian friends expanded. They all turned out to be middle-class
intellectuals who, like them, were strongly attached to their past
and to their beloved Iran. They manifested this astonishing mixture
of latent melancholy and yet, enthusiasm and joy towards the simplest
beauties of life.
One such beauty was undeniably the periodic,
warm get-togethers that each family used to organize, in which
we ate and danced abundantly, in which they chatted till dawn,
told each other typical Persian jokes, and above all, revived their
past. Gradually, these men and women, including my own parents,
came to incarnate in my mind the perfect image of a "real
In my protective environment, I had learned to view every fellow
Iranian as a potential friend, as someone I would feel a unique
connection with, and the occasional Iranian get-togethers - which
mostly coincided with national celebrations, such as Eyd- were
often blissful moments of evasion.
I still remember the day Mani
and I went to a Char Shanbeh Soori celebration as one of the
most beautiful days of my life. Was it my anticipatory emotions
peculiarities of that special cultural event that made it so
dreamlike to me, it is hard to tell. Was it because it somehow
of the last party we made in Iran, where my father, who was dancing
with utter abandon on the table, looked like the happiest man
on Earth? Or was it merely because I was in perfect harmony with
rest of the crowd, and could feel life in every single feature
of this huge get-together?
In fact, this Char Shanbeh Soori celebration was quite a good
picture of the emotional bond I had developed towards "my
Iran": it was comforting and inspiring in infinite ways. For
one thing, this bond provided me with a sense of belonging and
in that sense, it fed my fragile self-esteem. It made my days denser
and more joyful. It also linked my past to my present - although
in a rather narrow fashion - and in so doing, helped me in my silent
attempt to find meaningful marks and construct my identity.
Although far from feeling alien to the French society I was daily
engaging in, I would identify myself as an Iranian, and feel delighted
and relieved when my entourage - classmates, close friends,
and teachers alike - knew about Iran or was simply enthusiastic
to know more about it. On the other hand, I always got terribly
angry at those who would throw back to me that Iranian, Iraqi,
Algerian - and so forth - "meant" just one and the same
thing. People's ignorance or indifference - or both - translated
into an offence to my family and, equally so, to my own identity.
The day my friends and I went to see the movie "Not Without
My Daughter" clearly exemplifies this. While, outraged, I
was trying hard to prove my friends that this movie carried ludicrous
lies about the Iranian people and their culture, most of them severely
urged me to face reality and accept those sad things about my country.
As I was growing up and entering my teen years, new desires and
challenges seeped through my life. If anything, I was greedy to
discover the world and know more about human rights and social
justice. In those years, I also fell in love and experienced my
strongest friendships. Each of these relationships opened my eyes
on new realities, thoughts and emotions, and showed me that the "outside
world" too could be not only real fun, but also tremendously
stimulating, profound, and attaching.
Moreover, many intellectually
stimulating debates, such as racial discrimination in the suburbs
of Paris, started to capture my attention and point to the concrete
ways through which certain issues could impact my life on a day-to-day
Along these progressive changes, I had the strange impression
that my life was standing between two juxtaposed identities, connected
in complex ways that I only could perceive. One of them, which
I wouldn't be able to find a distinct name for, displayed
a thirst for independence. It was pragmatic and easily changing
and could adapt to a great many different circumstances.
somewhat hidden and sometimes voiceless, the other part of me had
infiltrated all my senses; it would embellish what I saw, deepen
my human experiences, yet, it would also complicate any choice
making process I would undertake and often take me to endless reflections
where my friends would, with much less difficulty, find their way.
Notwithstanding its importance, this other part of me, this Iranianess,
had been fragilized by new realities.
Indeed, within my teen years,
I began to frequently feel frustrated during our Iranian get-togethers
due to my inability to engage in most of the main debates. I barely
knew about the complexities of the Iranian society, its history,
and the causes and consequences of its revolution.
I had never found my Iranian friends. For one thing, there were
extremely few in my daily environment and the handful I knew were
either too "French" or too "Iranian". The former
seldom wanted to converse in Farsi with me and oddly enough, I
somewhat had the impression that they were not even tempted to
make friends with other fellow Iranians. The latter, on the other
hand, would sometimes use words and expressions I had never heard
before, would continuously evoke places, persons, and issues which
were solely confined to Iran, hence simply unknown to me... All
this contributed to making me feel like a stranger amongst those
I had always called my people.
I was seventeen when my recent identity crisis got suddenly suspended.
In any case, family issues always weighed more in my life than
my internal conflicts and personal questionings, and this time
more than ever before in our fourteen years spent "abroad".
It was high time for us, argued my father, that we experience a
radical life change. We were going to move far away again and settle
in a place where our futures would never be threatened by hostile
institutions and discriminatory rules.
We would land in a country
where no one will look down upon us and treat us like "kharejis".
If anything, my brothers and I will enjoy more secured life-chances
overseas, in Canada. In Canada, we were told, the Iranian community
had greatly expanded over the past years and it had now turned
into a strong and united ethnic group in which we could find our
marks and feel understood. Thus, in less than a few months, I said
good-bye to France, good-bye to my dearest friends, and we headed
It's been eight years now that I've lived in the
gorgeous city of Montreal. Although my intuition tells me I will
not stay here for the rest of my life, this city will undoubtedly
retain a central place in my heart for it has soothed many of my
sorrows and gave me refreshing instants when I most needed it.
The vivid contrasts in its architecture, ranging from the very
modern skyscrapers reminding you of New York's financial
district, to the picturesque streets of Old-Montreal, conquered
me at once. These contrasts provided the city with a unique and
timeless character, as if nothing ever died in it. It indeed
seemed that Montreal had espoused different cultures across different
historical times, without ever electing just one of them. In
it incarnated and celebrated all of them at the same time.
Montreal carried multiple identities vibrating at once, which
enriched its social tissue, made it a cultural place, and above
senses. While endlessly wandering its streets, I have often
perceived the latent cultural chaos residing in them as a reflection
the one I myself have carried along all these years.
In any case, apart from this love story of mine towards Montreal,
I have learned in the past years that traveling does open one's
eyes. Within months after our arrival in Canada, the innocent monolithic
image I had preserved of "the real Iranian" brutally
It is quite easy to deduce from the notes of my diary
how my initial encounters with Iranians in Toronto confused me
much. I wrote about the superficial manners of those I observed
in typical "mehmoonis", their fake American accent when
they all spoke Farsi way better than I did, or about Iranian women's
excessive make-up. In fact, such severe judgmental remarks partly
stemmed from the fact that I, again, was feeling like a stranger
Upon arrival, I also quickly realized that most Iranians
having immigrated in Toronto had a different historical background
and most importantly, expressed different political views from
my parents' and most of their friends' in Paris.
At any rate, there no longer was such thing as one "real Iranian" in
my mind... It was as much a diversified group as one can imagine
and the "powerful united Iranian community" my brothers
and I had heard of was clearly inexistent. Initially, these changes
I found very disturbing and hard to stand; in Montreal, we were
a rather isolated family and I often missed the refreshing get-togethers
we used to organize in Paris.
Over time, things slowly evolved. I still firmly believe that
nourishing the various facets of my identity represents one sure
step towards becoming the happy, fulfilled woman I have always
wished to be. I also firmly believe that keeping this "Iranianness" alive
deep-down as well as in my daily interactions constitute a vital
part towards achieving this end. Yet, it is precisely this Iranianness
of mine that has come to take other forms and other meanings.
a creative Iranian community-event has still the magical power
to transform a tiny movie-theater or a mere picnic area into a
homelike place, I have stopped "seeking Iran" solely
within my environment. Over time, I have indeed sought a more "one-to-one" relationship
towards my personified Iran, one in which I could get to know her
immortal personages, and not solely hear about them.
And so, on
a night of solitude, I discovered the authentic, brave, intelligent,
and sensual words of Forough. I would read the same poem's
translation times and times again to make sure I had fully captured
every single sign of lust, despair, rebellion, and love in it.
Gradually, I explored with awe a small portion of Shamloo's
poetry and through books and the precious help of my cousin Ali,
a fervent addict of Iranian poetry, I gathered as much information
as possible about him, his life, and his sublime accomplishments.
Also, unlike my older brother who, with much self-discipline
and passion, had been learning substantially about Iranian history
since his early childhood, I have read my first historical books,
reports, and articles in the past five years. This has allowed
me to understand some of the complexities of Iran's today's
society, and in doing so, this has helped me construct personal
opinions on certain issues and take part in some of the debates
I used to unquestionably be excluded from.
Ultimately, my initial
immersion into the infinite dimensions of Iranian poetry, its
literature and its history has provided me with exemplary models
women and men of the past and of our times who have fought for
love, individual freedom and integrity, as well as for other
universal human rights in their country.
Going to Iran becomes your ultimate desire once a "one-to-one
relationship" has begun. You don't want to idealize
her, nor do you intend to exaggerate her weaknesses and strengths.
You want to see her through your own eyes, and not through those
of the nationalists, the cynical, the disenchanted, or the idealists.
Talking, reading, and learning from those who live in Iran,
or have once done so, still keeps you captivated, yet it no longer
satisfies your senses. You want to feel the ordinary pace of
and contemplate, in the streets of Iran, the works of time and
history. Will you be an alien towards all features of the Iranian
society? Will you feel, more than ever, lonely and excluded?
In any case, you are ready to take up that risky experience.
Aside from these personal wants, I also hoped my parents' silent
longing would slightly pale through my going to Iran. Somehow,
I thought, they would travel through my journey, and see a bit
of Iran, with the help of hundreds of pictures, videotaping, and
And so, I underwent all the usual "rituals" that most
of us going back to Iran after ages do. There were the terribly
time-consuming, ridiculous, annoying ones such as getting your
Iranian passport for the first time, justifying the embassy people
why you have been abroad for so long without ever returning, and
waiting, waiting, waiting for their damn response...
endured all these harsh parts of the rituals to eventually go through
the sweet and moving ones, like purchasing tons of "Made-in-Canada" presents
to all the dear ones awaiting Mani and me in Tehran, picking up
friends' packs that we had to deliver to their relatives
in Iran, and so on. And now excited, moved, and anxious, now surprisingly
quiet, patient, and confident, I waited until that very special
evening, when, with my oldest friend, Mani, I flied back to the "real